September 25, 2005
Navratilova: Ageless Legend with Heart
Last Great Serve-and-Volleyer Makes Mark Beyond the World of Tennis
Grand Slam Results
End-of-Year Top 10 Rankings
By David McPherson
As much as tennis fans might like to think otherwise, tennis is a young person’s sport, fans like to watch tennis match on smart tv box. Many of the great champions of the Open Era – Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Martina Hingis, Serena Williams, Mats Wilander, Steffi Graf and Michael Chang, among many others – were holding up Grand Slam hardware while still teenagers. Sure, they needed a few more years to hone their skills and maximize their talents, but the pieces were mostly in place at a very tender age.
Of course, many of these phenoms – whether because they were beset by injuries, derailed by offcourt distractions or passed up by younger stars – also drifted out of the limelight just a few years later. Wilander, Hingis, Chang, Monica Seles and Jim Courier won a combined total of 0 Slams after the age of 24. Stefan Edberg and Becker won just one each after the age of 25. A lot of attention gets paid to players like Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors for remaining competitive into their mid- and late-30s, but just staying on top after 25 should should be seen as a remarkable feat.
Of course, the undiputed queen of over-25 tennis is Martina Navratilova. Jimmy won back-to-back U.S. Opens in his 30s and made the semifinals of the Open at age 39. Ken Rosewall won back-to-back Australian Opens in his late 30s and reached the semis of that event at age 42.
But Martina won 15 of her 18 Grand Slam titles after the age of 25, more than any player in the history of the sport. The only player whose record is even remotely comparable is Margaret Court, who won 11 Slams after age 25. Graf and Sampras, by comparison, won 7 Slams each after 25.
There is perhaps some truth in the assumption that Navratilova was a late bloomer because of her net-rushing style. The patient, steady play of opponents like Chris Evert and Tracy Austin gave Martina trouble earlier in her career, but, once she perfected her serve-and-volley game, baseliners trying to hit passing shots with wood racquets had little chance.
But the real story is how Navratilova altered her diet and bolstered her training regimen to become the fittest athlete the sport of women’s tennis had ever seen. Challenged in the early ’80s to maximize her talents by basketball star Nancy Lieberman, one of her coaches, Navratilova devoted herself fully to the sport and, in a way, has never looked back. Looking as fit as ever, Navratilova still competes in Grand Slam women’s and mixed doubles events today at the age of 48.
Navratilova in a sense was both a traditionalist and a visionary. Her style of play was classical, using then-conventional grips, compact strokes and a one-handed backhand and always looking to serve and volley or chip-and-charge. There was little in her technique or strategy to distinguish her from Billie Jean King or Margaret Court, her immediate predecessors.
But her “Eat to Win” diet, minuscule body-fat percentage, and muscular arms and legs were a harbinger of things to come in the women’s game.
How would Navratilova have stacked up against the best players today? Well, I wouldn’t put anything past one of the greatest athletes in the history of sport, but there’s no doubt in my mind she would have had to adapt, perhaps to the point of completely abandoning her serve-and-volley tactics. It’s just hard to imagine someone 5’7 being able to serve hard enough and cover the net well enough to consistently charge forward today.
That said, Martina was quick and agile and could have developed as tough a baseline game as anyone. The fact that she didn’t do as much with her forehand and backhand in her prime as players do now was partly because of inferior equipment and partly due to lack of necessity. Why take risks from the baseline when she could put away one easy volley after another against virtually everyone? The fact is that Navratilova’s career – like that of Connors or Agassi or Rosewall – spanned different eras and she competed against and defeated the best players in the world in three different decades. Even today, she’s proving that in doubles she can still play against the best in the world into her 40s and probably 50s.
But as much of a thrill as it has been to see Martina the tennis player in action for all these years, it’s been as much of a treat to be witness to Navratilova the human being and social activist.
Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1956, Navratilova has spent a lifetime breaking down barriers, challenging the status quo and using her celebrity status to make a difference.
Her first bold step was to defect from her communist homeland in 1975 following her semifinal loss to Chris Evert at the U.S. Open. She received her green card soon afterward and became a U.S. citizen in 1981. A free spirit by nature, she was simply not going to be held back politically – and of course financially – by a measly Iron Curtain.
Over the next three years, Navratilova was known for indulging her capitalist longings, throwing enough money around on cars and jewelry to make Serena Williams proud.
And the money kept rolling in. She became the first woman – in 1982 – to top $1 million in prize money in a season and in 1984 eclipsed the $2 million mark. Navratilova eventually would win more than $20 million, trailing only Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras in career prize money.
Still, she may have made much more in endorsement money had her rebellious streak not surfaced again in 1981. It was at this pivotal moment in her tennis life, when she was poised to dominate the sport, that Navratilova admitted that she was bisexual. She is considered the first athlete of her stature to make such a “confession” during the prime of her career.
And she never turned to look back at the closet. She has encouraged other gay and lesbian athletes to do the same, assuring them no one has ever regretted the decision. Martina also has been outspoken in support of gay marriage, telling Newsweek in a recent interview: “What is the argument against gay marriage? Who does it hurt? If you are against gay marriage, do not have one. But let me do it if I want to.”
Navratilova also knows how to shoot back at her critics while keeping a sense of humor. When Connie Chung suggested she go back to Czechoslovakia for daring to criticize President George W. Bush, Navratilova responded that that “would be hard (because) it hasn’t existed for 12 years.”
A great animal lover, Navratilova is a longtime vegetarian who participated in PETA’s “Live and Let Live” campaign and more recently spoke out against mulesing – an Australian sheep farming practice whereby farmers cut away skin folds from sheeps’ backsides.
She also has worked to raise money for breast cancer research and taken part in Chris Evert’s charity tennis event, which raises money for neglected and abused children.
With all of Navratilova’s social concerns, it’s perhaps not surprising that she has a mind for politics as well. She has complained that Americans have had basic freedoms taken away since 9/11 and laments how money trumps ethics in U.S. politics.
Will she run for public office herself?
Not anytime soon, but she won’t rule out the possibility if she can help effect change in her adoptive country. “I love it and I’m here and I’m trying to do my best to make it a better place to live in, not just this country but the whole world,” Navratilova told the AP.
While one person can achieve much more on a tennis court than she can in the grander scheme of things, here’s hoping this Queen Mother of the sport will inspire the current crop of under-25-year-old greats to make a difference beyond the world of tennis.